Local activists protest child migrant detentions in South Florida

  • A view into the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children from step ladders being used by Western Mass Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice. —Submitted Photo

  • All eight members of the Western Mass Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice stand on stepladders outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Susie Zeiger of Florence, left, and Dina Friedman of Hadley, both members of the Western Mass Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice, sit in a makeshift tent as they listen to other advocates for those being kept at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. —Submitted Photo

  • The Father’s Day rally near the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. —Submitted Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2019 11:56:32 PM

For the past three days in South Florida’s customary hot and muggy conditions, residents who call the Northampton area home have let undocumented immigrant youth, housed in the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, know that they care for their well-being.

Shouting in Spanish, “We see you. We love you,” the eight members of Western Mass Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice were among hundreds of people who gathered for Sunday’s protest at the detention site where more than 2,000 13-to-17-year-old migrants from Central America are being held.

Since arriving on Friday at the makeshift camp at the edge of the Homestead, Florida, site, the local contingent has been active in the ongoing effort to show compassion for the children. Their actions include waving heart-shaped signs, holding banners reading “No Estan Solos,” or you are not alone, and “May We Find Our Humanity,” and shouting Spanish phrases at them, as well as setting the stage for convincing politicians that the site amounts to government-sponsored internment or concentration camps, and should be shut down.

“The more you see, the more you cannot believe this is going on,” said Alice Levine of Easthampton, who describes the conditions at the facility as immoral.

She said these include shackling boys and girls when they turn 18 so they can be moved to an adult holding center, disciplining siblings who hug each other and meting out punishment for those who take showers that last more than 5 minutes.

Levine was joined by Dina Friedman and Shel Horowitz of Hadley, Betty Wolfson and Susie Zeiger of Florence, Joan Epstein of Pelham, and Joyce Duncan of Amherst, as well as David Nurenberg of Somerville, a former Valley resident, to spend time at the site during and in advance of the Father’s Day protest.

Their decision to go to South Florida came in response to reports that the shelter is like a prison, where many undocumented migrant children not in the company of parents, mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, are sent after being taken into custody at the United States-Mexico border. And the group has become part of an effort, timed to both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, to show that the children being held in Homestead are just like all sons and daughters.

“I felt strongly this was something I could do,” Friedman said. “I have to speak out on behalf of these children that the administration is portraying as others.”

Friedman said what she sees are children being denied the right to ask for asylum, and who are intentionally being held for longer than the 20 days allowed under what is known as the Flores Settlement Agreement.

“These kids did not do anything illegal. What is being done to them is not even humane, it’s beyond not being humane, it’s horrific,” Friedman said.

“This is in everything but name a secure facility. Their lawyers have described it as a jail,” Levine said.

With limited ability to call relatives and strict rules to follow while they are being held, and reports that the government may soon curtail their education and no longer allow them to play soccer, the local activists worry that conditions will deteriorate further. A private company, Comprehensive Health Services Inc., runs the camp through a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Friday was the first day most of the delegation from western Massachusetts had been at the site, though it was the 124th day for others who are serving as witnesses. The local delegation learned from these advocates how to use stepladders to see over the walls into the facility and to wave to some of the children. Some of the older children being held, though, are in a part of the site with even higher walls.

Levine said while the children are still playing soccer, it appears to be mostly boys who are getting this opportunity.

“We are concerned that the girls are not getting the same amount of exercise as boys,” Levine said.

The hope is to inspire other ongoing efforts, including lawsuits filed against the Trump administration accusing it of violating the Flores agreement, which requires undocumented children to be promptly released to relatives or other sponsors. In addition, Democrats have introduced legislation in Congress called the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act, which would not only affect the Homestead site but other places where children are being held.

When not on the stepladders, the group joined witnesses in the tents set up nearby throughout the day, where additional signs, more directed at the security guards and those in charge, are displayed, such as “Stop Separating Families,” “Shut it Down” and “Homes Instead.”

One of the tasks was to electronically scan hand-written letters from children across the country written on Memorial Day. It is uncertain whether these letters will ever reach the teenagers being held in detention, but Friedman said the idea was to make sure that they won’t be lost and can eventually be shared.

“Two that moved me the most were written by immigrants,” Friedman said.

The group is recounting its experiences on a blog at https://jewishactivistsforimmigrationjustice.blog

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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